Teaching DPLA

Last month, Sarah and I hosted an educational session about the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) at BPL’s Info Commons Lab. Hosting this session was a natural fit for Culture in Transit, as we contribute all the material we collect through the project to the DPLA, and regularly talk to our donors about how we share the materials we collect. We rarely have the opportunity to discuss the resources offered by DPLA in depth, so we wanted to host a public event to provide this education for our communities. We envisioned the event as a workshop, incorporating a discussion of the mission, development, structure, and infrastructure of DPLA with an opportunity for participants to have hands-on instruction in accessing and utilizing the resources that DPLA offers.

Screenshot of dp.la.

While we were preparing for the event, I was accepted into the DPLA Community Reps program, which gave us access to additional outreach materials, as well as the support of DPLA’s Engagement and Use Coordinator Samantha Gibson. Using these resources, we developed a lecture giving an overview of DPLA, as well as detailed tutorial about how to navigate through the many features of DPLA. We gave particular focus to saved items and lists, as well as the Primary Source Sets. These were both really popular with our workshop participants. We also developed a list of suggested tasks for the final section of the workshop, a self-guided exploration:

  • Sign up for a user account
  • Find an item contributed by your organization
  • Find an item from your hometown or somewhere you’ve lived
  • Find an item from the year you were born
  • Search material from your borough
          • Explore how to refine your search
          • Find an item in Spanish & German
          • Find an item from your neighborhood
  • Save all these items to your user account & make a List

Since the event was hosted by BPL’s Info Commons Lab, we were able to provide a laptop for each participant. Our event participants arrived with a hugely varying amount of knowledge – some had never used DPLA, others were from a DPLA Content Hub. Sarah and I circulated through the room during this final portion of the workshop and gave one-on-one instruction as needed.

A participant's view of the workshop.

A participant’s view of the workshop.

We asked participants to complete workshop evaluations, which will be useful in planning future events. We learned that most participants hoped to use DPLA for their own research, or as an education tool. We could have lingered more on the API. Most people had already heard of DPLA, but hadn’t explored in depth. In our own assessment, we wished we had given more examples of types of content, and really showcased a few examples of great material. We also noticed that the map and timeline searches were the most confusing for new users – more detailed instruction for these search tools might be warranted in a future event!


Story Circles with Richmond Hill Love Letter

For our last two events in Queens as part of the Culture in Transit grant program, we partnered with local artist Bridget Bartolini from the Five Boro Story Project. With additional funding from the New York Council for the Humanities, Bridget developed a series of story-telling, art and oral history events focused on the neighborhood of Richmond Hill that will stretch through the remainder of 2016. The two collaborative events, held over the course of the past month, combined our community scanning model with Bridget’s facilitated story circles. In addition to scanning new material about Richmond Hill, neighbors got to meet and share stories of the neighborhood.

Story circle participants at the Lefferts Community Library. Photo by Alex Gordon.

Bridget grew up in Richmond Hill and facilitates storytelling events throughout the city. Participants are given the opportunity to share a brief story (3 minutes) about their experiences growing up, living, or working in the local neighborhood. Our two events, titled Richmond Hill Love Letter and held at the Lefferts and Richmond Hill Community Libraries, brought together a wide-range community members and long-term residents. After everyone shares a story, the group is guided through an informal discussion of the ideas and issues raised during the story sharing. At Queens Memory we are always trying to encourage our donors have informal discussions about the neighborhood, so it was great to see what this could look like as a more facilitated process.

Working with a donor before the story circle.

Working with a donor before the story circle.

We brought our mobile scanning equipment, and set up by the entrance to the room. We had hoped that people would arrive on time, complete consent and metadata forms for their materials, and then Bridget would start the story circle. In reality, people arrived throughout the event, and sometimes were not interested in joining the story circle. We spoke with donors quietly and scanned their materials while others were sharing stories. Although it was great to be in the same room, it sometimes felt awkward to scan while people were talking to the group, especially when the story circle participants had quiet voices. The collaboration also underlined the amount of communication needed to get participants to bring material to be digitized. Despite the neighborhood history and storytelling focus of the events, most participants did not bring physical material to contribute. It will be interesting to see how the partnership progresses (beyond my tenure with Culture in Transit), and whether the regular story circle participants will donate material to Queens Memory in the future.

Modifying Our Digitization Standards

In October we wrote about our digitization standards for the project. We developed these standards at the outset of the project, before we had hosted any public events or visited any cultural heritage institutions. We agreed on robust standards, such as including a color target in every image, that would place us in-line with the standards used for in-house digitization projects. Our reasoning was that we both wanted to meet professional standards with our project, and that our community digitization events would be the only opportunity we would have to capture information about the unique materials brought in by the public. Thus it was all the more important that we create robust digital surrogates containing as much information as possible during our community events.

Master file of a photograph donated at a Queens Library event by Dolores Fernandez-Alic.

Master file with a color target of a photograph donated at an early Queens Library event by Dolores Fernandez-Alic.

Even in October, comparatively early in the project, we realized that cropping the color targets out of our Master files during community events to share with donors was really time consuming. As our events became busier, this process became less and less realistic. We didn’t want to end up in a situation where we were turning away donors because we were too busy cropping color targets out of JPEGS. We decided to modify our digitization standards for community events. We now scan one color target for each donor (with the date included in the file name), which is saved in the donor folder. Master TIFF files are created without a color target, which means the items are already cropped (thanks to the great pre-scan functionality of Silverfast). To create the JPEG derivative files that we share with donors, we just have to run a simple action in Photoshop that automates the file transformations. Even for a donor with a lot of material, this action takes under a minute to complete.

Color target, consent form, and digital surrogates in a donor folder (Irene Murphy Wallach).

This modification of our standards allows us to retain professional-level standards and best practices, while also responding to the time-pressured reality of digitizing material during public events.

Equipment Review: Epson V800 Flatbed Scanner

At Queens Library we purchased the Epson V800 scanner, as our department already had access to a V600 model and we wanted to experiment with another scanner model. The V800 also has some extended capability, including a significantly larger scan bed area for transparencies and the ability to scan 4×5 negatives. Many of the thoughts that Caroline summarized in her review of the V600 scanner hold true for the V800 model (it’s a great piece of equipment!). But there are some key differences between the models that should considered, especially given the substantial difference in price between the two models.

Sarah uses the V800 scanner at the Forest Hills Library.

Sarah uses the V800 scanner at the Forest Hills Library.

Size & Weight
The Epson V800 weighs 14.6 pounds, about 5 pounds heavier than the V600 model. It’s also slightly larger physically. While unfortunately this additional size and weight doesn’t mean a larger scan bed, it does mean that you need a larger wheeled case for transportation. We purchased the Pelican Storm Trak iM2975 for the V800. The case is easy to wheel around, but it’s size makes it unwieldy and it requires two people to lift in and out of a car.

The V800 model comes with Silverfast included, and as Caroline has noted, we love using this software.

Negative Capabilities
We haven’t had any donors bringing in negatives to our events, so we haven’t had the chance to test the extended capabilities of this scanner. We do plan to use this equipment to assist with digitizing our in-house archival materials in the future.

The V800 is faster than the V600 model. This can be an asset at a community event, where we are trying to get through material quickly and efficiently.

Overall the V800 consistently produces excellent quality master images, and is a reliable and sturdy piece of equipment. In our experience, the extended transparency and negative capabilities have not been worth the additional $500, but in another situation these attributes  could prove useful! You can see a full comparison of the specifications of the V600 and V800 scanners here.

Getting out of the library in Woodhaven

Over the past month, I have had the pleasure of working with the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society (WCHS) on a series of events held at offsite locations in the neighborhood. The Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society is very active in the community, organizing monthly meetings and discussions, neighborhood walking tours, film screenings and clean-up days at a local historic cemetery. I initially connected with Ed Wendell of WCHS while I was planning events at the Woodhaven Community Library last September. The timing didn’t work for a collaboration at that point, but we scheduled two events for early 2016. I was interested in experimenting with holding community scanning events off-site, in locations where community history and story-telling was already occurring. Since WCHS is so active in the community, it was a great opportunity to put this idea into action!

We scheduled an initial scanning event during the regular monthly meeting of WCHS, held at the Emanuel United Church of Christ. Our second event was scheduled for a couple weeks later at Neir’s Tavern, a local bar. Founded in 1829, Neir’s is one of NYC’s oldest bars!  Ed Wendell is also a local journalist, and featured the project and upcoming events on his radio show, as well as in his weekly column in the Woodhaven Leader/Observer. This was really successful in getting news about the project out to the community, as well as generating interest in the events.

Setting up at the Emanuel United Church of Christ.

The day of our first event at the Emanuel United Church it absolutely poured rain. Buckets of rain. However, twenty community members slogged over to the church to learn more about Queens Memory and our community scanning model. The President of the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association brought a complete set of their monthly newsletter from 1993-1995, and Ed Wendell brought scrap books from the local American Legion. Although we didn’t get the blockbuster numbers we had been hoping for, these two donations made the event a success.

Community scanning at Neir’s Tavern with the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society.

The weather was much better for our second event at Neir’s Tavern, and many donors turned out with photographs in hand. We collected some really great material at the event, from 1930s school photos to wedding photos of the bartender’s grandparents – who were married in the bar 60 years ago. The bar also created a great, informal environment, where the donors gathered together for food, to look at each other’s photographs, and to share stories of the neighborhood. This type of informal historical engagement and story sharing with neighbors is exactly the type of context we are striving to create alongside our community scanning events!

Donors chat at the Neir’s Tavern community scanning event.

Finally, the events have generated energy for further engagement with Queens Memory in Woodhaven and neighboring communities. We will be returning to Woodhaven next month for a scanning event at a local school, and are in the early planning stages for an event at a nearby historic house. It’s great when our events generate interest and requests for further engagement with the communities we are working in!